Feb 26, 2011


Like the past three years, I'll do a short review of 4 of the nominees and a complete review of my pick of what I think should be the winner.

127 HOURS - A.R. Rahman

The story of 127 Hours is about being stuck between a rock and...well..another rock. It's based on the true events involving thrill-seeker Aron Ralston's struggle to survive after he suffers a brutal accident leaving him stranded alone in the middle of nowhere. It's not necessarily the great movie it's made out to be, as it's been tremendously overrated and pushed by studio moguls who just wanted to recreate the critical and box office success of filmmaker Danny Boyle's previous Oscar winning 2008 effort, Slumdog Millionaire.
Back to serve under Boyle's direction is Indian film composer A.R. Rahman who seems to be establishing quite a name for himself in Hollywood after his successful score and hit song "Jai Ho" for Slumdog. Like his woefully ignored and spirited 2009 score for Couples Retreat, Rahman once again proves with 127 Hours that he is not just a Bollywood composer or a flash in the Hollywood shitpan.
Rahman composes a somewhat challenging score that reflects on the euphoria, intensity and isolation that is portrayed quite profusely in the film. Rather than composing something as flamboyant as his usual work, Rahman takes a different route and creates quite an effective atmospheric score. Rahman seems to favor eccentric instrumentations over the usual score ensembles and that's what makes him stand out from the rest of the score composers working today.
The central character theme is somewhat of a urgent piece titled "Liberation", which serves as the cornerstone to the film and is broken up into three movements. Each piece gets increasingly more violent and desperate as we watch James Franco's character slowly fading away on screen. Oddly enough it shares the same gritty progressive rock qualities that Boyle's former go to composer John Murphy would have brought to the table, particularly echoing that of 28 Days Later's "In The House In A Heartbeat". While it's interesting to hear it develop more and more into frantic urgency, it never really gets off it's feet into anything worthy of award material.
The gorgeously calming "The Canyon" is without a doubt the highlight of the score. With it's thought provoking clarinet solo played over a lush string section fading in and out, it can't help but remind me of the lonely, yet lovely, theme Alan Silvestri composed for Cast Away.
Rahman ventures into disturbing territory with the hallucinogenic cues "Acid Darbari" and "R.I.P." Making use of an Indian chants and some abstract vocal laments, tinkling bells, a sustained distorted guitar in the background and some mystical sounding electronic effects that seem to act as the voice of the blistering sun.
It should be noted Rahman has also co-written and performed a song with pop vocalist, Dido for the end credits roll. The consoling and absorbing "If I Rise" is a fitting song to round out the film and a wonderful way to close the score. The messy album presentation is another story, with source songs scatter all over the place. Some good, some terrible. Either way they are sorely out of place.
The score is all right and works perfectly with the film itself. As a listening experience it doesn't add up too much but a good 17 minutes worth of 4 star material salvages it from being a complete bore.

**1/2 out of 5

INCEPTION - Hans Zimmer

Thank the sticky-floor, popcorn gods for Christopher Nolan and Inception.
For an unreasonable number of years, the Hollywood Blockbuster has been nothing but mindless and noisy eye candy inflated with pointless CGI that does nothing to carry the story and only sell toys.
Memento & Insomnia director, Christopher Nolan has changed all that with his uber-moody reboot of the Batman franchise. By investing us into solid storytelling and over the top, yet strangely believable action pieces, Nolan brings the brains back to the table of the Blockbuster, while not sacrificing any of the fun in the process.
Now Inception may not be the mind-bending complicated head-trip the average popcorn munching fanboy has made it out to be but thankfully it still asks you to keep your thinking cap firmly in place.
Playing like a mixture of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Alex Proyas' Dark City, infused with a heavy helping of The Matrix, Inception is a tragic love story wrapped in intricate neo-noir dream sequences and extravagant action scenes set in James Bond-esque backdrops.
With all that on the cinematic palette, composer Hans Zimmer was given a wonderful collection of ideas and statements to paint a musical picture with. Sadly that is precisely where things begin to fall short and I suspect Nolan might actually be the one to blame.
Time and time again, Zimmer has proven himself as a top-notch composer with a large resume of extraordinary scores from all genres, almost always filled to the brim with a keen sense of creativity and more than adequate instrumentations. However Nolan seems to have his mind very firmly set onto what sort of style and sound he is looking for and that would probably be why a lot of Zimmer's work for Nolan sounds like a larger scaled reworking of the director's former main composer, David Julyan.
Not to say that Zimmer's score doesn't work with the film itself, because it does to a tee. It sewn so deeply into the film that it's often difficult to differentiate what us as the viewer is hearing as backdrop music and what is part of the sound design the characters on screen can hear in Inception's world.
Now because the score is so deeply woven into the film, it suffers greatly when standing alone. It's almost like tearing out the heart and seeing how long it can sustain life without it.
Inception has a few very engaging ideas musically wise and some very bold statements are made but in the end it just falls a little short. Mostly due to constantly resorting to meandering electronically produced foggy moments that just sort drift alone without any character or development for anything that our thoughts or ears to grab onto.
One of the most impressive ideas Zimmer came up with for the dream-woven world of Inception, was the use of iconic French singer, Edith Piaf's classic "Non, je ne regrette rien" as sort of a plot device, linking the waking world and the dream world together. What Zimmer does is takes the opening bar of Piaf's song, slows it down to an unrecognizable speed, then pumps up the bass and volume, twisting it into something similar to a strikingly menacing foghorn. This fascinating and alluring motif is used to reflect on the idea that the time in the dream world passes by slower than in the 'real world'. Very clever, Mister Zimmer. Very clever indeed.
Next up, Zimmer makes use of an orchestra in such a strange manner he most definitely deserves recognition for his inventiveness with this technique. After writing short motifs and themes, he recorded them with an orchestra, sampled the recordings, then with sharp auditory manipulations and filtering, Zimmer mixed them into the new age type compositions he wrote on his synths. With this he created a very modern sounding noir-ish type score that would easily appeal to the younger generation. This approach to scoring is quite effective in some of the quieter and moodier moments of the film but for the loud, more action-oriented scenes it suffers greatly. It comes off as sounding like a symphony being strained through a pop can. It would probably lose a lot of it's impact in the film too had the volume not been turned up in the mix and the sound effects not overpowered many of these moments on screen.
Perhaps the most strangest idea was to bring in The Smiths & Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr and have him play a few notes here and there. While it is welcome to see the two musicians come together on the project, Marr's work on the album could have easily been performed by anyone. It's not terribly complicated guitar work nor does it even feature any of his own compositions. They could have had Joe Blow from accounting on the third floor to play the guitar parts and it wouldn't have made a difference. In fact the guitar work is buried so far into the mix you might not even recognize it's even there.
Once again Zimmer resorts to his tiring chopping board string charges and overly simplistic testosterone pumped brass arrangements that just doesn't do it for me anymore. It was fun when he first started using this tactic but after so many years of recycling this idea and hearing many other composers today emulate it, it just becomes impotent and dull.
To be fair, Zimmer has some great moments of beauty and wonder that is actually quite rewarding. There's a sort of sublime elegance and mystery that haunts these moments with an ambience reminiscent of textures used in Vangelis' Blade Runner score.
The highlight of the entire score is the concluding cue, "Time" which in a way could be a hopeful rearrangement of Zimmer's own "Journey To The Line" from A Thin Red Line.
Hans Zimmer delivers an extremely compelling score as heard in the film, however the scores falls short on it's own with too many moments of Zimmer on action-writing auto-pilot. Although with about 20 minutes of top-notch material here, it is possible to edit together a very impressive concert suite.

As heard in the film : **** out of 5
As heard on it's own : ** out of 5

THE KING'S SPEECH - Alexandre Desplat

The King's Speech at it's core is a moving story about a building friendship based upon personal struggle and the battle to overcome it. The film follows the true story of King George IV and the conflict he endures to conquer a potentially crushing speech impediment as he's being ascended into The Throne.
The public humiliation and sadness is captured so well in the first five minutes of The King's Speech that it immediately absorbs you into this beautifully framed and delicately yet powerfully written film. The same can said about French composer Alexandre Desplat's wonderfully sublime and heartfelt score for this thoughtful little piece of cinema. When I say "little" I mean small in scale and that's precisely what enthralls you with it. The King's Speech doesn't try to overwhelm you with extravagant settings, larger than life dialogue and costumes like most films about royalty seem to be guilty of. Desplat understands this and holds back from ever becoming overly pompous or melodramatic.
Instead he opts for a very small and intimate score consisting mostly of a warm string and woodwind section led by a sole piano, likely representing the feeling of family and friendship.
The King's Speech is a delightfully light-hearted score with just a hint of sadness brilliantly merged into it's leading theme. The piano lightly taps away in a pizzicato style, taking the personification of a stutter without sounding too abrupt or disrespectful. This particular theme is what captures a certain sense of dignity quite well without ever getting too prudish or stilted. In fact it flows with such grace and warmth it easily allows you to emphasize with the characters on screen with a sense of familiarity.
The secondary theme that represents the developing friendship between the two main characters is based around a warm string section and some graceful piano playing ascending into some absolutely gorgeous woodwinds and harp. Without words it speaks so loudly and clearly of an undeniable sense of the respect and empathy the two characters have for each other.
We are taken down some darker passages as well, as Desplat reuses some of similar minor chord progressions he used so brilliantly in his submission to Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows. Deslplat explores slight hints of dissonance and inevitable dread to creates a sense of fragility and tragedy we all can relate to.
Desplat takes some interesting approaches with the thematic material, that could have easily taken the score on a detour into the mundane and repetitive but with beautiful melodic writing he avoids that road all together. First off he almost never lets the emotions swell into overly dramatic territory, instead he steps aside and allows the actor's powerful yet delicate performances take center stage. Secondly, Desplat doesn't develop the themes at all until the very end and even then it's very, very brief. By not allowing the melodies to expand, it seems to mirror the stutter of King George IV and never rises until the speech impediment no longer controls the King.
Things are finally allowed to really cut lose for a brief moment in "The Rehearsal" cue. Both themes are cleverly interwoven with each other in an up-tempo rhythm, as a flute prances into the fold with such optimism it reminds me of some of the happier moments in Elfman's Black Beauty.
In an interesting and incredibly effective twist, director Tom Hooper and Desplat decided to use source material for the climatic scene and closing of the film. Two faithful adaptations of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 7 -II" and "Piano Concerto No. 5 Emperor II" were recorded apart from the rest of the score using a larger ensemble.
The only shortcoming I can find with this score, is a minor one but can't go unnoticed for most audiophiles like myself. Desplat decided to go for some authenticity with the recording process of this score and brought in six authentic microphones that were used by the Royal Family to record their speeches during this historical era. An interesting process but sadly the sound quality sometimes suffers in the lower reqions of the score, particularly during the moodier moments. This goes completely unnoticed on film but on album it is quite apparent with a respectable sound system.
Sound quality aside,The King's Speech is a score worthy of the recognition it's receiving and should be a staple in your Desplat collection.

**** out of 5

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Who would want to see a movie about the internationally popular, social networking internet site known as facebook?
That seemed to be the most frequently question asked when someone would mention The Social Network, before it became a critical and box office success.
It's full of unlikable characters, shallow situations, possibly factually inaccurate and, to be blunt, it's about the creation of facebook. At first thought, you would think you'd rather see a movie documenting Bill Gates' morning breakfast habits.
All that aside, it's also scripted and paced with well-refined precision, well acted, shot beautifully and hypnotizing in a strange, pessimistic and unsettling way.
The finer points in this film would mostly be credited to the wonderfully casted performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Timberlake and Andrew Garfield. As well as the admirable script from screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, who was fresh from TV's criminally under-appreciated The West Wing and woefully canceled Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, which was what attracted Se7en and Fight Club director David Fincher.
One of the most surprising additions to the team was Nine Inch Nails mastermind, Trent Reznor, who had been hired to score the film. Initially, he was completely uninterested about working on a facebook movie and passed on the job to enjoy some free time away from anything remotely musical and just relax. Fincher insisted that he read the script before making a final decision and much to Reznor's surprise he was drawn into the morally warped screenplay and signed on right away, sacrificing some much needed holiday time. In Reznor's own words about the film: "it's really fucking good...and dark",
With Reznor enthusiastically on board, it was time to lighten the workload a little and bring in one of his working partners, Atticus Ross, who had just handed in a reasonably impressive and atmospheric score for the forgettable The Book Of Eli, earlier that year.
After Fincher's last film collaboration with composer Alexandre Desplat on the quiet and melancholy The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, it came as a colossal surprise to the industry and the public that the director had chosen two 'rock' composers not known for their subtly or orchestral elegance.
What the final product proved, was that Reznor and Ross are fully capable of handing in a score worthy of the buzz it's received.
Using a combination of '80's pop sounds, modern synth textures and moody atmospherics, Reznor & Ross created a fascinating 'wall of sound' with layers of interweaving sound design and rhythms.
The album comes off as almost a continuation of Nine Inch Nails' daydreamy instrumental album 'Ghosts'. In fact it even goes so far as to rearrange two tracks from that record for the final score.
The composers manage to capture the modern insane hell that the film paints and the timid, social awkwardness of facebook creator, Mark Zuckerberg into just a few simple descending piano notes heard in the main theme at the beginning.
Breaking the ice with an off putting stuttering drone, much like Hans Zimmer's theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight, then smoothly introducing a few lonely piano notes at the forefront, reflecting that of Zuckerberg's alienation and ironic inability to function in social situations.
The main theme is heard only a few times throughout the film but by the end, the piano is buried under layers and layers of distortion and noise, it's almost as if it's supposed to emulate Zuckerberg's emotions being engulfed within the legal and relationship Hell he's created for himself.
Apart from this single theme The Social Network doesn't really have a thematic voice to attach itself to but rather a textural one filled with electronic blips, waves of uncomfortable sound and some catchy beats to boot.
With all these wonderful moments on the album it has to include just a few instances of almost laughable silliness as well.
At some points you could almost swear it's going to break into an inane dance number with some cheesy robotic voice telling us to "dance around the world and back".
On another track you almost expect to see Top Gun's Maverick appear over the horizon after the big jet-fight and everybody cheers.
Normally I would say these blunders aren't the composer's fault as they are just writing for the specific scene but there really aren't any definitive scenes in this film that would call for such dippy musical numbers.
Perhaps the most absurd moment on the album is the duo's synthetic rendition of Edvard Grieg's classical jewel "In the Hall of the Mountain King". It's like they decided to rearrange the piece for the Super Nintendo and drain it of all it's original impact. It's very much like Wendy Carlo's classical synthesized hack job on A Clockwork Orange soundtrack, only it plays no purpose in the film or the specific scene it's attached to. It's completely pointless and is quite frankly incredibly distracting.
When it all comes down to it, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross' contribution to The Social Network is a brave accomplishment for all parties involved. After working with such celebrated composers as Howard Shore, Elliot Goldenthal and Alexandre Desplat, I'm sure it took a little courage for David Fincher to involve Reznor & Ross and request such an untraditional score.
There are many weak moments in the album and it does become tiresome after about 50 minutes but the talent can't go unrecognized and if these two keep on working on it, they could be well on their way to becoming accomplished score composers.
I'm happy to see avant-garde scores like this and 2009's The Hurt Locker get recognized by the Academy, rather than the usual traditional score. Whether or not they're actually being noticed for the thought and work put into the music or just the films they are attached to, doesn't really matter to me. It means the general public are taking notice and quite frankly is somewhat amusing to see these scores create such silly, bitchfest squabbles on snooty film score discussion boards.
Should it win (or won, like it did) the Oscar? I don't think so. There are two other scores I think are more deserving but Reznor & Ross do deserve the attention and will hopefully keep on working in the film business to eventually prove themselves worthy to even the snobbiest of film score fan's ears.
I like this.

*** out of 5

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